Maria Schneider is an exemplary role model for composers who want to have their cake and eat it too. She writes music chock full of complex rhythms and elaborate counterpoint, but crafts it in such a way that the end result sounds simple and totally beautiful. On first listen, it’s hard not to be immediately seduced by the almost child-like (her word) prettiness of her melodies. But repeated encounters reward listeners with a profound emotional and intellectual experience.
These rewards are probably why she has done so well as a touring and recording artist and a DIY publisher. The second and third pieces of that eaten yet still had cake, is that she is able to make the music she wants—music for her own 18-piece orchestra, which is very expensive to tour and record—on her own without a trust fund and without relying on grants. In the world of musical genres that are usually deemed non-commercial and unremunerative, she is a flourishing venture capitalist thanks to her relationship with ArtistShare, a new business model for a recording company in which the recording artist must raise all the money to make a recording but retains all the rights and most of the profits.
Maria’s triumph has been critical as well as financial; she frequently tops the polls for best composer, best arranger, best large ensemble, and best recording, and her self-produced album Concert in the Garden was the first recording sold exclusively via the internet ever to win a Grammy. She is also able to market and sell scores of her music online, even as Music Minus One renditions.
Part of what has made Maria Schneider so appealing to audiences of all stripes—both the non-practitioners who love her melodies and the musicians and critics who voraciously study everything she does—is the radiant charisma of her on-stage persona. But she doesn’t actually play an instrument publicly; when she appears with her orchestra, she herself describes her role merely as “a focus” to “bring everybody’s energy to the same concentrated point.” Maria’s humble, down-to-earth take on her own music and the secrets of its success came across time and time again during our conversation, which encompassed discussions of her childhood in a small Minnesota town, her discovery of jazz and contemporary classical music, and her willing to challenge comfort zones, both her own and others which has sometimes led to difficult decisions she’s had to make that have kept her orchestra going strong for the past 15 years.